Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #85:

If You Build It, They Might Come, Part One: Attention

by Shannon Appelcline

August 22, 2002 - Three months ago, in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #73, There's No Such Thing as a Free Launch I talked about the launch of our fifth Skotos game, Grendel's Revenge. What I didn't discuss then, however, was the fact that a launch is only part of the story. You see, you might have successfully designed, developed, engineered, and launched the best online game in the world, and it won't mean anything if you don't have players.

For the next couple of weeks I'm going to be discussing how you can get players to try out your shiny new game. This week I address the question of how you get people into your game, by developing solid and specific memes; next week I'm be talking about how to keep players in your game once you've gotten them there.

Know Yourself

Previously, in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #39, Ah, Sweet Simplicity of Life! I wrote about the benefits of having a simple game design. As I discussed there, it lets you really concentrate on a single aspect of your game and get that right.

But, simplicity is important for more than just design. If you ever want to market your game — if you ever want to get players into your completed product — your game has to be simple enough that you understand it.

You see, on the Internet, you can count on about a nanosecond of attention from anyone who happens to chance upon some reference to your game. In that bare nanosecond, you need to offer a very simple synopsis of your game. "A castle of romance and mystery" might work. "Well, it's a fantasy game, and it uses as its sources LeGuin, Tolkien, Pratchett, and Williams, and it's got a lot of Norse, Greek, Roman, and American Indian legends too, and you can fight monsters and people and steal things and... " probably won't.

There's a flip side to this. You not only need to figure out a simple core for your game — you need to ensure it's compelling too. (A friend of mine who distributes games often asks, about new products, "What's its unique and compelling feature?" That's a good question for you to ask about your game as well.)

Once you've found that short and compelling heart of your game, you need to be able to describe it in a number of different ways. Personally, I think there are three very important basic descriptions: the theme, the gameplay, and the background.

They all lead to being able to construct an elevator speech for your game.

Let me reiterate here that these are all things you should have figured out long, long before your launched your game — long, long before you tried to attract players. In particular theme, which I'm going to discuss momentarily, is one of the first things you should decide upon when constructing a game.

If you haven't considered the simple, compelling story of your game until the launch, and you've ended up with a rambling, off-balanced structure... things might be very interesting for you.

Hopefully, that's not the case, and you've come to this column early in your game design cycle.

The Theme

The theme is the utterly crucial heart of your game; it's the idea at the core of everything. It influences gameplay, background, and — really — everything.

For Castle Marrach, our first Skotos game, we were very careful to define a theme before anything else: By thy deeds thy shall be known. Characters are judged in Marrach by what they do; they rise in power and hierarchy accordingly. (We've never been very public about this theme, but when we've mentioned it to players they've generally said, "Oh, yeah," and immediately realized how it fit into the Marrach world.)

We're now designing Lovecraft Country: Arkham by Night and have once again started out by clearing stating a theme: Act as if Nothing is Wrong. This idea of hidden dangers and purposeful ignorance will likewise be an important focus as we build our next game.

A theme doesn't have to be eloquent as the ones I noted above; it just has to go to the heart of your game. I'm not aware of any formally stated themes for the other Skotos games, but with just a little bit of thought I can generate ones that might do the trick for each of them:

  • The Eternal City - To each according to their skills.
  • Galactic Emperor: Hegemony - Outwit. Outdeal. Outlast.
  • Grendel's Revenge - Monsters are people too.

Looking back at many public MUDs, starting with the AberMUDs I cut my own teeth on, I find it very hard to state themes for any of them. I think most don't have any. That's because the older public MUDs were often unwieldy, complex messes, mixing numerous game styles and genres. And it's hard to synopsize that it a pithy little saying, other than, "Anything Goes."

And that makes it hard to attract players.

The Gameplay

In my aforementioned article on simplicity, I already talked a lot about simple gameplay. It also pops up in a few of my articles discussing the success and failure of various Galactic Emperor games: Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #62, Galactic Empires, Part One: Failing at Succession and Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #63, Galactic Empires, Part Two: Expanding into Space.

In general, the point here is the same as mine about theme: you need to be able to come up with a simple synopsis for the gameplay of your game so that you can understand it and so that you can explain it to others. Here's how I'd explain the core gameplay of our current games:

  • Castle Marrach - A game of socialization and storytelling, with duelling and item alteration systems included to provide hooks for roleplaying and storytelling.
  • The Eternal City - A skill-based game of achievement, combat, and socialization.
  • Galactic Emperor: Hegemony - A strategic game of conquest.
  • Grendel's Revenge - Part real-time strategy, part skill-based game of achievement, combat, and socialization.
  • Arkham by Night - A game of socialization and storytelling, with insanity, grimoire, and dreaming systems included to provide hooks for roleplaying and storytelling.

The Background

Just like your other core concepts, you need to be able to explain your background in a very short, simple manner. You have to not only understand your genre, but your specific setting as well. Again this can be clearly shown by example using current and future Skotos games:

  • Castle Marrach - An isolated castle in an eternal winter.
  • The Eternal City - A Roman-style city and surrounding lands.
  • Grendel's Revenge - The wilderness and monster lairs of a virgin land.
  • Arkham by Night - A dark university and city, set in the 1930s.

The Elevator Speech

Figuring out the core theme, gameplay, and background of your game is, largely, a step toward figuring out the elevator speech for your game.

The term, "elevator speech", comes from the entrepreneurial field and refers to the 1-minute description of a business that an entrepreneur can give to a Venture Capitalist between when they get into an elevator together and when the elevator doors once more open and the Venture Capitalist can make his escape. In the world of text, think of it as offering a synopsis of everything new and innovative and exciting about your game in about a paragraph.

It's a really tough task, and something that I'm still not comfortable with, though I've been writing these "elevator speeches" for all the Skotos games for two years.

By way of example, here's the current incarnation of my Castle Marrach elevator speech:

You awaken in a small guest chamber, deep within the Castle Marrach. Who are you? How did you come to be here? You explore the labyrinthine corridors of the Castle and the questions multiply. Why has the drawbridge not been let down in living memory? How does the Castle replenish its supplies? Intrigue, mystery, romance, and fantasy combine in the story of Castle Marrach.

It talks about the background (labyrinthine corridors) and hints at the gameplay (mystery, intrigue, romance, stories). Sadly, it misses the theme.

When we launched Galactic Emperor: Hegemony in March, I wrote the filling elevator speech for it:

The galaxy is at war! In this Java-based game of diplomacy and strategy you will fire the first shots of a new galactic conflict. In the end a great Hegemony will be formed, an interstellar state which rules over its neighbors, and it will be the seed of the Galactic Empire still to come. Do you have the skill to become the first Hegemon? New games of Galactic Emperor: Hegemony are starting daily; join now and conquer the galaxy!

Just before GenCon I rewrote it:

The galaxy is at war! In this Java-based game of diplomacy and strategy you will fire the first salvo of a new galactic conflict. Eleven other Overlords stand ready to defend their territory with mighty armadas and deadly sunkillers. Fleets will battle and worlds will die. You only have three weeks to become the first Hegemon.

The careful reader will note that the second version more clearly states the constraints of the game (12 players, 3 weeks) and also more clearly discusses the gameplay (fight! fight! fight!). I think the second elevator speech does a much better job of explaining the game in an evocative way.

Marketing a Game

What I have described in this article is all prologue — the type of things you should have figured out when you started working on your game:

  • The theme.
  • The gameplay.
  • The background.

Your goal in assembling these facts is to craft a great elevator speech (and shorter slogans and ads) so that more people who hear about your game will actually try it.

That's all fine and dandy, you might say, but how do I get the word out there? How do I give my elevator speech to the world?

The answer to that, of course, is marketing and advertising, which is beyond the scope of what I want to cover in this column. In our own community the best advertising method has always been word of mouth. You help people find out about your game and they'll help other people find out about your game. It's a bit of Catch-22, at the start, but once you really get it going, nothing will stand in its way. You, on the other hand, might find banner ads, game directories, bounty programs, or any number of other methods more effective for your own purposes.

Next week: so, you figured out your games' core ideas, built your game with them in mind, and then boiled down those core ideas into simple descriptions which actually got people into the game. What next?

Or, how do you make sure people stay once they've tried your game?

We'll be ramping up to more technical game design issues, because it's good, properly directed game design that makes people happy and keeps them in a game.

See you in 7.

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